Don’t be a goat: Know the joint employment law before going to trial

Joint employment goatI took a picture of this goat right before it tried to eat a small paper cup. The paper cup had food in it, but the paper cup was not the food. This confusion is understandable because, well, it’s a goat. The bar is set low for a goat.

The bar needs to be set higher when retaining counsel to defend against claims of joint employment. A recent California case shows what happens when your lawyer doesn’t understand the proper test for joint employment.

In the lawsuit, a staffing agency employee had been retained to work in a supervisory role as a line lead in a production department. We’ll call the place where she worked the “contracting company.” The worker was accused of bullying, then she accused another worker of harassment, and the contracting company terminated its her relationship with her. We don’t know whether the staffing agency terminated her direct employment, but that’s not important for now. The point is that the contracting company terminated its relationship with her.

She then sued the contracting company for having terminated her role there, accusing the contracting company of sexual harassment and retaliation. Because her direct employer was the staffing agency, she would have to prove that the contracting company was her joint employer. That’s because you can only allege employment discrimination claims against an employer. In other words, to bring a claim of employment discrimination against the contracting company, she had to prove that she was an employee of the contracting company.

Under California anti-discrimination law, a right to control test is used to determine whether a business is a joint employer. The test looks at how much control the business had over how the worker did her work. Because she was a line lead and a supervisor for the contracting business, there were plenty of facts that could support a finding of joint employment.

The lawyers for the contracting business either didn’t understand the joint employment test or they knew their goose was cooked, so they tried a different approach. Instead of arguing that the contracting business did not have a right to control her work, they argued that the jury should look at who had more control — the staffing agency or the contracting business. They argued that the staffing agency hired her and paid her, so it must have had more control over the essential terms of her employment. The staffing agency, they argued, was therefore her real (and only) employer.

The jury bought this argument, finding that the contracting company was not a joint employer because it exerted less control than the staffing agency.

But this argument was too clever by half. That’s not the test. So last week, a California Court of Appeals reversed the judgment, sending the case back for a new trial. You’ve got to use the proper test.

The test for joint employment is not about who had the most control. It’s just about who had the right to exert certain types of control. If more than one business exerts the right kinds of control, there can be more than one employer. That’s the whole point of joint employment.

Here’s an analogy that may be useful. Suppose a worker has a manager, who reports to a general manager. Both the direct manager and the general manager have control over the worker, even though the direct manager has more day-to-day and direct control. But they both are managers, and both have the right to control how the worker does the job. It’s not about which of the two managers has more control. They both manage the employee. Jointly.

To effectively defend against claims of joint employment, it’s necessary to understand the legal test for joint employment. Here, the contracting company argued the wrong test and scored a hollow victory at trial. In goat-speak, they overlooked the food and ate the paper cup. Now they’ll have to do it all over again, costing the contracting company a boatload in additional legal expenses for a second trial.

The lesson here is: Know the law, and know the tests. It’s hard to mount a real defense against joint employment if you don’t.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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In Contract Labor Agreements, This Simple Clause Can Be Your Pillow

Joint employment contract clauseFor humans, some things are essential. Like a good pillow. For non-humans, the anti pillow sometimes works too. Not sure how. But the non-human in this picture generally sleeps like this.

For businesses contracting for labor, some things are essential too. One clause you are likely to have in contract with a supplier of labor is the right to remove a bad apple from the project.

The bad apple clause typically reads something like this: “We have the right to remove any individual supplied by contractor from the project for any reason at any time.”

That’s useful, but does it create an argument that your business is taking control over the individual’s employment in a way that could make your business an employer (or joint employer) of an individual you remove?

Here’s a simple fix to improve your contracts and limit the viability of that argument:

“We have the right to remove any individual supplied by contractor from the project for any reason at any time. We do not, however, have any right to control the individual’s employment status with contractor. Contractor retains the sole right to make all decisions regarding the hiring, termination, and other conditions of employment for all individuals assigned to the project or removed from the project.”

Consider the addition of that extra sentence or two to be a fluffy pillow.  It will help you sleep better if faced with a misclassification or joint employment claim.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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A New Smell: Ninth Circuit Rejects ABC Test for Determining Joint Employment

Joint employment dogsWhere I play tennis, there’s a lake with a beach that is open all summer. Like most places in the Midwest, it closes for the season on Labor Day. The weekend after Labor Day, they open it up for everyone to bring their dogs to run around, jump off the high dive (I wish!), and sniff each other’s butts. Because dogs are not typically allowed at the lake, these dogs are unfamiliar with each other, so there’s even more butt-sniffing than you might normally see at a canine networking event. 

My daughter captured this gem of a photo — a five-dog sniffing train.

An unfamiliar smell wafted our way from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week too. And this was a more pleasant scent for California businesses than usual.

The case was a joint employment case involving a franchisor. A local franchisee was accused of miscalculating overtime and failing to provide sufficient meal and rest breaks. The plaintiff-employees settled with the franchisee but continued to go after the deeper pockets, the franchisor. They made several arguments.

Two were of the most interest to me.

First, they argued that the Dynamex ABC Test should be used to determine whether the franchisee’s employees were also the franchisor’s employees. The Court rejected this argument, holding that the Dynamex ABC Test applies only to the question of whether someone is an independent contractor or an employee. To determine whether someone is a joint employee, a different test is used.

Second, they argued that under California’s broad definition of employ, the franchisor “permitted” the franchisee’s employees to work and therefore was a joint employer and jointly liable for the franchisee’s mistakes.

The Ninth Circuit rejected that argument too. To determine whether someone is a joint employer under California wage and hour law, the Court said you look at three alternative definitions of employ: control, “suffer or permit to work,” and the common law S.G. Borello balancing test. If any of these three tests is met, there’s joint employment. The “suffer or permit to work” definition is the broadest and is the one that is most likely to tag a company with joint employer status.

The Court determined that even that broadest of definitions could not be met. The franchisor had no control over day-to-day operations, hiring, firing, scheduling, or worker pay.

For California businesses, the key takeaways from this case are (1) that the ABC Test is used only to determine independent contractor misclassification, not to determine joint employment, and (2) that the test for joint employment is relatively easy to meet but it’s not automatic, even for a franchisor.

The Court acknowledged that the nature of a franchisee-franchisor relationship necessarily involves franchisor control over the product, but that does not mean it controls the employees. It is the franchisor’s relationship with the franchisee’s employees that must be looked at to determine whether there is joint employment.

We have seen plenty of decisions from of the federal and state courts in California that have threatened to expand joint employment and threatened the franchise business model. But this decision smells good, even if a bit unexpected — like an unfamiliar but friendly dog at the beach.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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NLRB Wants New Rule To Prevent Student Teaching Assistants From Joining Unions

Flip flops NLRB union graduate students 2019Summer may be over, but the National Labor Relations Board isn’t ready to put away its flip flops.

It’s been a busy few months, with the NLRB releasing a number of recent decisions that change Obama-era interpretations of federal labor law.

On Friday, the Board released a new proposed rule that would declare college teaching assistants to be non-employees, meaning they cannot form unions. The proposed rule would declare these graduate students to be just students under federal labor law, not both students and employees of their institutions. The new rule would apply even though the students are paid.

The Board’s explanation for the proposed rule is that graduate students are primarily students and the paid work is primarily for an educational purpose.

If this rule were to pass, it would reverse a 2016 NLRB decision, which found that Columbia University students assistants were also employees of the school because “they perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated.”

The 2016 decision reversed a 2004 George W. Bush-era Board decision, which found that Brown University student assistants were not employees because their relationship to the university was primarily educational.

The 2004 decision reversed a 2000 Clinton-era Board decision finding that NYU graduate student assistants were employees that could form unions.

The 2000 decision reversed a 1974 decision, which found that Stanford University graduate students were not employees because their paid roles as student assistants was primarily educational.

I think you see what’s happening here.

The new development is just that the Board has proposed a new rule. The rule, if enacted, would change the offical interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act to be that graduate student assistants are not employees. Notably, despite the flip flops listed above, the statute has not changed. But depending on which political party has a majority on the 5-member Board (currently 4-member Board), the Board’s interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act changes and changes again.

The current Board seems to think that by making its changes through rulemaking, rather than through Board decisions on actual cases, maybe its interpretation will be stickier in the long run. I doubt it.

Even if the proposed rule passes, it seems inevitable that whenever the next Democratic-majority Board is in place, it will switch back to the view that graduate student assistants are employees and can form unions.

There’s a 60-day comment period on the proposed rule, then the Board can decide whether to pass it as written, modify it, or scrap it.

In any event, students are back in school, and so far the weather seems good enough to keep using flip flops — at least in Washington, D.C., at the National Labor Relations Board.

See you at the beach.

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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Need Direction After California’s New Independent Contractor Law? Download the Playbook!

Siri punked me. Independent contractor misclassification AB 5Sometime I forget where I park, so when I went to the airport recently, I told Siri where I left the car.

Siri then punked me with this. I think it was intentional. Stupid AI.

California businesses may be in need of some direction too. On September 18, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 5 into law.  The law redefines the Independent Contractor vs. Employee test in California, applying an ABC Test to a broad range of state laws.

When the law takes effect January 1, 2020, it will instantly turn thousands of independent contractors into employees. Some aspects of the law may even apply retroactively.

What are your options?

I can think of ten. Click here to download The Playbook: Now That California Has Passed AB 5, What Are the Options for Businesses Using Independent Contractors?

 

Page 1 from The-Playbook-California-AB-5_p03

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© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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California Businesses May Need Emotional Support Clown When New Independent Contractor Law Takes Effect

Emotional support clown independent contractor misclassification

An Auckland, New Zealand man sensed he was about to fired from his job in the ad industry. His employer scheduled a meeting and said he could bring someone with him for emotional support.

He brought a clown.

As the employer provided the man with his separation papers, the clown made balloon animals — a poodle and a unicorn — to try to lighten the mood. The clown also mimed crying as the employer explained the termination.

Afterward, the man described the performance of his emotional support clown as “overall supportive” but “sort of noisy.”

California businesses may want to hire their own emotional support clowns as they try to decide how to respond to Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), which has passed both houses and now awaits Governor Newsom’s signature to become law.

AB 5 makes it harder to classify workers in California as independent contractors.  Once it takes effect, it will instantly convert many thousands of independent contractors into employees.

Here’s how. AB 5 codifies the ABC Test invented by the California Supreme Court in the Dynamex case and then extends it.  In April 2018, the California Supreme Court ruled that a strict ABC Test would be used for determining whether someone is an independent contractor or an employee under California’s Industrial Wage Orders, which cover minimum wage, overtime, meal and rest breaks, and a few other wage-related subjects.

Under AB 5, the Dynamex ABC Test will also be used to determine whether someone is an employee under all portions of the California Labor Code and the Unemployment Insurance Code.  That means independent contractors in California will be presumed to be employees of the entity for which they perform services under these laws, unless the business can prove all three of the ABC Test factors below:

A) The person is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact;

B) The person performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and

C) The person is customarily engaged in in independently established trade, occupation or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.

As discussed here, Part B of the test is the hardest to meet.

Unless all three factors of the test are satisfied, the workers will be considered employees under California law, and all of the following state law requirements will apply:

  • Minimum wage
  • Overtime, if not exempt, including daily overtime
  • Meal and rest breaks
  • Reimbursement of expenses
  • Paid sick leave
  • Paid family leave
  • Various notice, poster, and wage statement requirements
  • Timekeeping record requirements
  • Unemployment coverage
  • Workers compensation coverage
  • Paycheck timing requirements
  • On-call, call-back, and standby pay requirements
  • Travel time payment requirements
  • Final paycheck requirements
  • Commission rules

This is not intended to be a complete list of all California laws that apply to employees, but these are some of the most likely areas where businesses would find themselves to be in a state of noncompliance if their independent contractors are deemed to be employees under AB 5.

There are a number of exemptions to the bill, but they are narrowly crafted.  Barbers and estheticians, for example, are not affected.

If signed, the law will take effect January 1, 2020, although some provisions may be applied retroactively.

This bad news leads to the obvious question you astute readers will ask: So what are my options if I use independent contractors in California?

I am putting the finishing touches on The Playbook: Now That California Has Passed AB 5, What Are the Options for Businesses Using Independent Contractors?

The Playbook will be available at no cost and will be released as a BakerHostetler Client Alert. I will post a link here, once it is available.

In the meantime, let me know if you’d like more information about how AB 5 might affect your business. If you can’t reach me, I’m probably on the phone, trying to hire my own emotional support clown.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

Need training on avoiding independent contractor misclassification claims? Hey, I do that!  

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Sperm Oil Legal Alert: Can You Sue under the Tax Code for Independent Contractor Misclassification?

Sue tax code independent contractor misclassification

When laws are well-written, they’re really specific so everybody knows what you can and cannot do. For example, Title 21, Section 173.275(c) makes it a federal crime to use more hydrogenated sperm oil in food than necessary to accomplish the intended lubricating effect of the sperm oil. (Thanks @CrimeADay!)

Some laws, on the other hand, leave room for interpretation. That’s when lawyers can get creative.

A drapery hanger in Maryland filed a lawsuit alleging that he was misclassified as an independent contractor and should have been paid overtime like an employee. He sued under the usual federal and state laws, but he added a bit of creativity.

The Internal Revenue Code includes a section allowing someone to sue if an evildoer “files a fraudulent information return with respect to payments purported to be made to any other person.” That’s 26 USC 7434, for those keeping score at home. And USC refers to the United States Code, not OJ Simpson’s alma mater.

The drapery hanger included this claim in his lawsuit, alleging that the sole proprietorship that allegedly owed him overtime pay also violated this law by filing 1099s instead of W-2s.

Points will be awarded here for creativity, but those points cannot be used in court. Federal courts don’t take points. (This was not addressed in law school.) All points awarded may be applied to future discounts at your local gas station. No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited.

The court said, nice try but no. This section of the Code refers to the filing of fraudulent amounts of pay, not filing the wrong form.

Had the decision gone the other way, a claim under this section of the Code could be tacked onto just about every independent contractor misclassification lawsuit. And we don’t need that hassle. There are already enough laws that cover misclassification. And sperm oil.

© 2019 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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